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Through Political and Cultural Wars, Whither Sports?

“A grand jury’s decision not to charge officers in Breonna Taylor’s death made sports superfluous again, with the NBA reeling and leagues such as MLB — remember baseball? — fighting for any attention.”

Jay Mariotti

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It’s useless looking beyond tomorrow in sports, much less next week or next month or next year. For all we know, more game boycotts await after officers in Kentucky weren’t charged in the death of Breonna Taylor, who has been the focus of outcry in the NBA Bubble and throughout a racially torn America. All it takes is one LeBron James rage tweet, followed by a storm of protests in his league and others, for activism to shut down the games that ring hollow and trivial.

This is America in late September 2020. Forty days and nights before a hostile presidential election nothing short of unreal, sports is superfluous except when it is political. When the news arrived that only officer Brett Hankison would be charged by a grand jury — on three counts of wanton endangerment after shooting into the homes of Taylor’s neighbors — the NBA’s conference finals shrunk to an afterthought.

Black Lives Matter.

Until they don’t, at least in Louisville.

The verdict led to violence, with two Louisville police officers shot during demonstrations and hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. The reaction is what James didn’t want, but he’ll be blamed anyway as his influence in the ongoing conflict grows more significant. Nearing his fourth NBA title, surely the most bizarre and challenging championship any sports legend has won, James sent the Taylor news to his Lakers teammates via a group text. Then he tweeted from his hotel on a campus he can’t leave, which has limited his platform for social change to Zoom interviews and social media posts. He first needed only four words — “JUST SAY HER NAME’’ — along with a video of Aja Monet reciting the original poem of the same title. Then he unleashed a torrent: “I’ve been lost for words today! I’m devastated, hurt, sad, mad! We want Justice for Breonna yet justice was met for her neighbors apartment walls and not her beautiful life. Was I surprised at the verdict. Absolutely not but damnit I was & still am hurt and heavy hearted! I send my love to Breonna mother, family and friends! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!!’’

This came hours after James, who had called for the officers “who committed that crime’’ to be arrested, said he condemns all violence, including retaliatory attacks against police. “I’ve never in my 35 years ever condoned violence. I do not condone violence towards anyone,’’ he said. “That’s not gonna make this world or America where we want it to be.”

Said teammate Danny Green: “We feel like we’ve taken a step back, that we haven’t made the progress we were seeking. Our voices aren’t being heard loud enough. But we’re not going to stop.’’

It wasn’t what NBA players had in mind when they agreed to play at Disney World. They thought social messages, painted on courts and worn on jerseys and shoes, could help lead to systemic change. But only a trip to Louisville, en masse, would work at this point. And restrictive confinement doesn’t allow for day passes, not when NBA commissioner Adam Silver is hellbent to complete his postseason without a coronavirus outbreak.

“Sadly, there was no justice today for Breonna Taylor,” said Michele Roberts, executive director of the Players Association. “Her killing was the result of a string of callous and careless decisions made with a lack of regard for humanity, ultimately resulting in the death of an innocent and beautiful woman with her entire life ahead of her.’’

Said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a frequent critic of President Trump and modern-day American life: “It’s just so demoralizing. It’s so discouraging. I just keep thinking about the generation of American kids, of any color, is this the way we want to raise them? Is this the country we want to live in?”

For now, the various quests for championships chug along, financial formalities more than joyful pursuits. The NBA and NHL have remarkably avoided virus disruptions in their respective Bubbles and are trying to award trophies and sneak out before Covid notices. In the NFL, mindless bravado continues to be revealed as naked stupidity, starting with head coaches who don’t wear masks on the sidelines, thinking play calls are more important than the wellness of other human beings. College football keeps force-feeding a disjointed season, oblivious to campuses rocked by Covid. Then we have Major League Baseball. Remember baseball?

The guinea pig sees daylight. It has been a grim and brutal experiment, muddled by dozens of game postponements and many more positive Covid tests than the powers-that-be dare to disclose. But in a few days, somehow, MLB will start its postseason and collect nearly $1 billion from broadcast partners in a distasteful money grab that prioritized — all together now — industry wealth over the health of those in uniform.

It’s no reach to say this is the most important October in the sport’s history. Even before the pandemic, MLB was plunging toward a crippling labor impasse next year, with the warring owners and players doomed to rub each other out. Now, there’s no assurance fans will return to ballparks anytime soon, which will paralyze free agency this winter and create more ill will. The games never been been slower, all foul balls and strikeouts with a home run mixed in to curb yawning, and the human element that made the game real has been algorithmed-out by tech nerds. A shotgun regular season has been a cluster of chaos and attrition, with the abnormal and creepy leading to uncertainty and fatigue, to the point Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash made a startling confession to ESPN.

“This isn’t fun,’’ said Cash, whose team only has the American League’s best record.

Meaning, the postseason had better be spectacular. Because baseball, largely ignored in autumn as it is, faces competition like never before: renewed tensions over racial injustice and police brutality, news shows focused on a hostile presidential election, an NBA Finals likely to include James and, of course, Covid.

You’d be a fool to assume MLB, or sports in general, has conquered the coronavirus. This remains a silent, stealth antagonist that could strike at any time, in as many waves as it wants, and shut down every pro league and college conference in the land. In a story Trump must love, Jon Gruden and Sean Payton were among five more head coaches fined for violating the league’s policy — and please don’t argue that both men have had Corona and, thus, are immune for the long term. You don’t know that. They don’t know that. Tony Fauci doesn’t know that.

“I’ve had the virus. I’m doing my best. I’m very sensitive about it,’’ Gruden said. “I’m calling plays. I just want to communicate in these situations, and if I get fined, I’ll have to pay the fine.’’

In that his 2-0 Raiders are based in Las Vegas, anyone want to bet Gruden doesn’t wear the mask in Week 3? Being fined $100,000 won’t stop these tunnel-visioned loons in the heat of the moment. Being fined an added $250,000 won’t make their owners blink. Just expectorate, baby. Never mind the message it sends to millions. And never mind that the team doctor issuing Covid advice might be a quack, such as the Chargers’ physician who accidentally punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung while giving the quarterback a pain-killer injection for cracked ribs.

Then there’s college football. If Touchdown Jesus, the Four Horsemen and the Gipper can’t stop a breakout, I’m not sure why four of the Power Five conferences — please don’t join them, Pac-12 — persist in staging a disjointed season when campuses are bombarded by Covid cases. At least Notre Dame is being responsible in postponing a game until December after 13 players were isolated; if only ruthless factories such as Clemson and LSU were as accountable, with Dabo Swinney and Ed Orgeron remaining oblivious to anything but TV riches and their competitive egos.

But when Silver said he’s “clearly learning a lot from other sports’’ when pondering his league’s uncertain future, which likely won’t involve a Bubble that remarkably has remained Covid-proof, he’s primarily referring to MLB. The chaos of the summer months — outbreaks that sidelined the Marlins and Cardinals, positive tests seemingly every day — has given way to hope that a World Series actually can be completed in late October. Of course, as long as Rob Manfred is commissioner, any plan could go sideways or ass-backwards. But the playoff Bubble once thought beyond Manfred’s acumen is about to happen. Teams that have qualified or remain in contention are in quarantine this week, restricted to an indefinite hotel life until they are eliminated or reach the Series, which starts Oct. 20 in that hallowed baseball hotbed of Arlington, Texas. Even when teams play at home ballparks in the first round, they can’t return to their actual places of residence or wander the streets.

Finally, baseball has figured out what the NBA, NHL, WNBA and Major League Soccer knew long ago: The Bubble life is the only safe and effective sports life during a pandemic, regardless of what the NFL is claiming after just two weeks of a season vulnerable to Covid until February. It doesn’t mean the postseason will finish, especially as Manfred insists on having fans in the stands in Arlington for the National League championship series — yes, an American League ballpark is hosting the NLCS — and at the World Series. Isn’t the commish defeating the purpose of the Bubble by inviting fans into a Texas Bubble? Manfred doesn’t care. He’s an army general now, thinking he has won the battle.

“We are pressing ahead to have fans in Texas,” he told USA Today. “One of the most important things to our game is the presence of fans. Starting down the path of having fans in stadiums, and in a safe and risk-free environment, is very, very important to our game.”

Again, he is prioritizing money over safety. Isn’t there also a competitive issue if, say, many more Dodgers fans travel to Globe Life Field for a World Series than Rays fans? Or many more Dodgers fans than Braves fans in a hypothetical NLCS? The AL playoffs will have no such issues because of California’s restrictions banning large gatherings, assuring more fan-less scenes for the divisional series in San Diego and Los Angeles and the ALCS in San Diego. Isn’t this all a bit, um, uneven? Manfred still doesn’t care. He’s a rebel without a clue, talking like a conquering hero. “The best way to say it is that 2020 presented some really, really difficult challenges for the sport, and I never worked harder to try to meet those challenges,’’ he said. “I do take pride that we’re just a few days away from finishing the (regular) season, an important milestone for the industry.’’

As in, cha-ching!

Not that anyone is concerned about the players who have had Covid or the various spreads to family members and others they’ve infected. We’ve heard nothing about spread data because, hey, the owners are recouping some of their TV money. That has been the only end-game. But first, there is a postseason to get through and protocols to heed in a season with too much evidence of irresponsible behavior by several teams. “It’s 2020. I think the sacrifices will have to continue, and this is a big part of it,’’ said Cardinals reliever and Players Association committee member Andrew Miller, referring to the Bubble. “Players certainly have an appreciation for making sure we do everything we can to have a successful playoff run. That is a big part of what we’re doing this year — get to the playoffs and call it what it is: Get that TV money. Hope that money gets into the game, and we find a way to survive this year that is obviously tough financially.”

If a new playoff system has too many qualifiers — 16, also part of the money grab — at least we have refreshing stories for a change. With the Yankees trying to legally fend off the public release of a 2017 document that allegedly confirms them as electronic sign-stealing cheaters (and why isn’t anyone talking about it?), I’m imagining Fernando Tatis Jr. in the World Series. Or the White Sox, with Jose Abreu and Tim Anderson, winning only their second Fall Classic since throwing one in 1919. You tired of the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros, Cubs and Indians? Me, too.

We’re in the weirdest year of our lives. Why not think weird? I actually might watch weird, such as a World Series between … the Marlins and Rays? After 18 Miami players were infected by a July outbreak, there was thought of sending the Marlins home until next year. After all, weren’t they a minor-league operation anyway? The outbreak led to a shocking breakout and a likely playoff berth. They aren’t getting past the NL’s first round, of course, and they aren’t America’s Team. But they are Pandemic’s Team.

More than ever, it’s important to have fun with sports, or at least try. When we’re actually counting down the days to Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, the air might be too heavy to keep enjoying ballgames. But barring boycotts, the games are going on whether we care or not, background noise for an American maelstrom.

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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